Saturday report

The Lakers will finish the first chapter of their season Sunday, the one in which they played 15 of their first 20 games at home. Lakers coach Phil Jackson pronounced the stretch merely “OK” and said he would like to have back the home losses to Detroit, Milwaukee and New Orleans. The last of those losses he described as “bewildering.”

But there’s also definite optimism around the team. They’re 3-0 without Bryant and 13-6 overall despite having nearly as many injured players as healthy players in training camp. That doesn’t include Jackson, who didn’t coach in a single preseason game coming back from hip replacement surgery. The Lakers’ success falls somewhere between surprising and remarkable.

Jackson credits it to a second year of playing in the triangle offense and playing with one another. The Lakers also haven’t needed Kobe Bryant to average anywhere close to 35.4 points per game this season, which Jackson talked about at Saturday’s practice.

“I think thats one of the things that we wanted to make sure this year that our players understood,” Jackson said, “that even though last year Kobe was a significant factor, a most valuable type of player in this league that he had to expend himself to such a point that we became atrophied as a team.

When we had to step into that level in the playoffs and everybody had to step into their role, we werent able to finish it out. I dont want to take anything the run that we had in the playoffs, but it wasnt a success because we lost.

“Thats where everybody felt like they didnt do their part, they didnt hold up their end. So I think theyve come back this year with that information that we gave them last year to close out our meetings, theyve come back with the determination to do better.

That’s your state of the team evaluation for today.

* * *

Why’s it good to be Kobe Bryant? Because there’s a Maybach in the players’ parking lot that belongs to you. For those of us who couldn’t make the L.A. Auto Show this month, it was nice to have the Auto Show come to us. They don’t let the commoners at the Convention Center even get close enough to see the sticker on the Maybachs.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

EL SEGUNDO–The Lakers have been building toward this ever since the calendar turned to December, a final exam tonight against San Antonio at Staples Center, before the road games start coming fast and furious.

The Spurs came into Saturday tied with Utah for the NBAs best record at 15-5 and have won four consecutive games. In their victories the past week, they led Golden State by as many as 42 points, Charlotte by 22 and the Clippers by 37.

“Theyre playing as good as anybody can play right now, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, noting that San Antonio also is 8-2 on the road.

“I think theyre the toughest test for anybody, Kobe Bryant added, “just because they play so well and theyre so organized and so steady.

Whether the Lakers will have Bryant available was in doubt Saturday. Bryant sat out all of practice and did only light walking while trying to keep his sprained right ankle elevated.

Bryant was wearing a blue compression sleeve that stretched from his thigh to his foot, designed to pump the swelling out of the ankle. He didnt play Friday and said he wouldnt play tonight if the ankle felt the same way it did Saturday.

However, Bryant was optimistic that the ankle would improve with another 24 hours rest and continued therapy Saturday night.

“Well get up tomorrow morning, Bryant said, “and it should feel better than it does today.

If Bryant cannot play, Maurice Evans would start again in his place. The Lakers will have to put forth a strong defensive effort against the Spurs, with Smush Parker staying in front of Tony Parker and Kwame Brown using his size against Tim Duncan.

The Lakers also are hoping to finish their front-loaded schedule of home games on a positive note. They played 15 of their first 20 games at home but have eight of their next 10 after Sunday on the road, including a six-game Christmas trip.

Another ankle: Vladimir Radmanovic suffered a sprained ankle going through a dry run at practice. Jackson chuckled when recounting the injury because there was no contact and only light running involved. Radmanovics status had not been determined.

Bryant on Odom: Entering his third season playing with Lamar Odom, Bryant offered his thoughts about the evolution taking place with his teammate. Although Odom has had two lackluster games this week, he still is averaging 18.4 points, 9.0 rebounds and 4.9 assists.

“Last year, what I used to have to remind him every once in awhile was, Do you want to be a great player or do you want to be a (so-so) player, Bryant said. “When you think about it, if he could step outside of himself, he could take it to another level.

“This year, I havent had to do that at all because its just clicked with him. Again, I think it was the playoffs. The series he had against Phoenix, he stepped up (and) had an incredible series. I think that showed him what hes capable of doing.

Bryant also was asked about the locker-room tribute that Odom pays to his infant son Jayden, who suffocated in his crib in June. Odom has hung an oversized T-shirt with a drawing of his sons face.

“The first time I saw it was very difficult, Bryant said. “I think for everybody that saw it, it was tough. But for Lamar, its not a moment of sadness. Its a moment of honor, for the life the child was able to live up to that point. From that point forward, its not a shocking moment. Its happy because it makes him feel good.

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Thursday report

As miserable as Wedneday night’s loss was to the Hornets – – and Lakers coach Phil Jackson offered some pointed criticism as you’ll see below – – the Lakers can take some consolation in having accomplished what they needed to with this home-heavy stretch of games to start the season.

Back when the schedule was announced, I wrote that the Lakers would need to win 12 or 13 of their first 20 games – – 15 of which were at home – – to avoid having to make up ground on the road. They’re guaranteed to notch between 12 and 14 wins with games still to play Friday against Atlanta and Sunday against San Antonio.

You never want to give away home games, which the Lakers did against a shorthanded Hornets team Wedneday, but Jackson said just the other day that it was “pretty tough to count on anything positive” about this homestand before the season given the injuries to Kobe Bryant and others.

The Lakers also will hope to come together on their six-game Christmas trip the same way they did when they hit the road last December and won five of six.

Jackson talked at Thursday’s practice about his formula for a playoff team of winning 75 percent of home games and splitting on the road. The Lakers need one more home victory to finish 11-4 in this stretch and stay on pace for a 50-win season.

* * *

When the going gets tough, the Lakers shoot the 3.

They took nine 3-pointers in the fourth quarter Wednesday even as the Hornets played a four-guard lineup with center Tyson Chandler and practically dared the Lakers to beat them inside. They made one of those 3-pointers and conceded after the game that they fell into a trap.

Its fun shooting 3-pointers, especially when youre open,” Luke Walton said. “But youve got a team with (Jannero) Pargo and Chris Paul in the game as the 1 and 2. Thats a small lineup. They want us to shoot 3s and weve got to be disciplined and not do that.

The Lakers played similarly when Milwaukee settled into a zone defense for much of last month’s game. They took a franchise-record 37 3-pointers trying to break it.

* * *

After going 0 for 4 Wednesday, Walton no longer is leading the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage. Walton slipped to fourth behind Gerald Green, Al Harrington and Kyle Korver. It will be interesting to see how Walton bounces back Friday against Atlanta. His confidence in his shot has been at an all-time high.

* * *

The Lakers obtained a $2.1 million disabled player exception for Chris Mihm. They have to use it by Dec. 29 and would have to release a player from their 15-man roster in order to add a player with it.

* * *

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

EL SEGUNDO–The Lakers have played 11 of their last 12 games at Staples Center, spending all of one night away from Los Angeles since Nov. 9, and the comforts of home might be starting to have a negative effect on their play.

The morning after an uninspiring loss to New Orleans, Lakers coach Phil Jackson spared no criticism of his team, calling the play of Kwame Brown and Andrew Bynum “horrendous and saying Lamar Odom was “completely out of focus.

“I think theres an assumption that youre going to win because youre at home and that youve done it before, Jackson said. “Thats a lazy mans attitude towards it. We have to have much more intensity on the floor.

Jackson was particularly disappointed with the effort the Lakers made in keeping guards Chris Paul and Jannero Pargo out of the lane. They needed a “roadblock to the basket, as Jackson put it, and his big men consistently were out of position.

“Theres a certain level at which you say, `You dont come any farther, Jackson said, later adding. “You have to make a statement.

The Lakers were outrebounded 49-31, gave up 20 offensive rebounds and offered little resistance as Paul totaled 26 points and 11 assists. For his part, Jackson said he would consider starting forward Ronny Turiaf tonight against Atlanta.

The Hornets were playing without three of their four leading scorers and had lost five games in a row before arriving at Staples Center.

“We just didnt play with that kind of determination, Jackson said. “They were more determined than we were.

There are two home games left for the Lakers before they play eight of 10 games after that on the road. They will play San Antonio, Dallas and Houston (twice) next week, with Jackson questioning if the Lakers would be able to stay above .500.

“The way we havent progressed as a team in the last week, Jackson said, “I think we really have to look and see what we have to do to get better.

Jackson also watched as Odom, putting up the best numbers of his career this season, finished Wednesdays game with seven turnovers. He had three in succession at the end of the first half and committed a horrific inbounds violation late in the game.

Odom also took and missed a quick 3-pointer with 2:32 remaining after Jackson had just diagrammed a play to go inside during a timeout.

“Lamar was completely out of focus last night, Jackson said. “He wasnt attentive at all. That (shot) was consistent with what went along with his game.

Jackson additionally talked about the two spots “where you have to have energy as a basketball team. The first was an organizing guard, the job belonging to Smush Parker, and the other was an enforcer inside, one of Browns responsibilities.

“We dont have either as a basketball team, Jackson said. “Thats where our weakness is right now. Were looking for guys to step into that role.

Ankle update: Kobe Bryant sat out Thursdays practice after playing 37 minutes the night before on his sprained right ankle. He is probable for tonight.

Its pretty sore right now, Bryant said. “Its a little more swollen than it was before the game yesterday. This is something we expected. Get some treatment and see how it responds.

Also: The NBA approved the Lakers request for a disabled player exception for center Chris Mihm, who is out for the season after undergoing ankle surgery.

The Lakers can use the $2.1 million to sign or acquire a player through a trade but must do so by Dec. 29.

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Hornets 105, Lakers 89

It has to be incredibly disappointing for Lakers fans when the Hornets put a lineup of Chris Paul, Jannero Pargo, Rasual Butler, Desmond Mason and Tyson Chandler on the floor for most of the game and the Lakers can’t pick that group apart on offense or stop them on defense.

They settled for shooting 3s on offense – – 1 of 9 in the fourth quarter – – and had no choice but to play a zone on defense just to keep Paul out of the lane.

“We started settling for outside shots,” Luke Walton said. “Kobe’s ankle was hurting but he played great tonight. He gave us everything he could. They had a small lineup out there a lot, too. Instead of pounding the ball inside and just beating them down there – – we did it every once in awhile and then we’d start shooting jumpshots. We’ve got to recognize that as a team and correct that.”

Hard to imagine how bad that might have been had Kobe Bryant not played. I asked Bryant afterward if he would have liked the chance to take Paul late in that game had his ankle been 100 percent. Bryant’s size might have been the one thing that could have caused Paul problems.

“I would have looked forward to it,” Bryant said. “We had a chance to talk a lot over the summer, so I know him fairly well. I love his game and I also love the challenge of guarding players of his caliber.”

* * *

By Ross Siler [ep
Staff Writer [ep

Talking about his sprained right ankle at Wednesdays shootaround, Kobe Bryant offered the assessment that it “looks worse than it feels. The same could not be said of the Lakers 105-89 loss to the New Orleans Hornets with Bryant in the lineup.

With Bryant playing at 50 percent on the ankle, Lamar Odom committing a junior-high school turnover down the stretch and Chris Paul penetrating at will, the Lakers suffered a loss that both looked and felt terrible.

The Hornets arrived at Staples Center having lost five games in a row and were playing without three of their four top scorers. Yet the Lakers had no answer for Paul, who totaled 26 points and 11 assists, and were outrebounded 49-31.

By the fourth quarter, the Lakers were left to throw up their hands and settle into a zone defense to keep Paul out of the lane.

The Lakers also couldnt capitalize even as the Hornets played most of the game with four guards on the floor. They gave up 20 offensive rebounds and made just 3 of 19 3-pointers.

Bryant finished with 24 points on 10 of 17 shooting in 37 minutes. He was unable to attack the basket with the injured ankle but was the Lakers most effective player despite being reduced to a shooter.

“I couldnt run like I normally do or explode or get to the basket and things like that, Bryant said. “Theres certain holes in the defense that Ill make sure to capitalize on next time we play them if Im healthy.

It was the Lakers first home loss to a Western Conference team, with coach Phil Jackson reminded of next weeks schedule – – San Antonio, at Houston, at Dallas, Houston – – after the game.

“Were not in competition with San Antonio yet, Jackson said. “This team isnt at that level. We havent showed we can play at that level of a game.

“So those games, we just have to play above our experience and our precision that we normally do and we have to bring a lot more to the game than we showed tonight.

When he wasnt getting in the lane and causing havoc, Paul was finding Tyson Chandler rolling to the basket for alley-oop dunks. As Lakers forward Luke Walton said afterward, “Every play they run is a pick and roll for (Paul).

The Lakers eventually gave up and opted for the zone. Rasual Butler hit a 13-footer with 2:42 left and the shot clock expiring. Former Laker Jannero Pargo followed by burying an open 3-pointer that put the Hornets ahead 98-87 and the game out of reach.

“Penetration – – its a killer, Jackson said. “We couldnt stop Paul, we picked him up, dropped back off him, tried to do a variety of things against him and he found penetration.

Odom, meanwhile, walked into the locker room complaining of a head cold and had seven turnovers in the game. The last was one of the most mindless plays Jackson had ever seen.

With 4:38 remaining in a six-point game, Odom went to inbound the ball to Smush Parker underneath the Lakers basket. But Odom instead dribbled the ball across the baseline as if he was going to bring it up himself. Inbound violation, Odom.

“Lamar made one of the most unusual plays Ive ever seen in basketball, Jackson said. “I think Ive seen it once before in . . . thousands of games.

He was asked what game. “Probably junior high school, Jackson answered.

Odom said: “I played bad the whole game, so Im not surprised by it at all.

The guard trio of Paul, Butler and Pargo combined to score 69 points. Butler came into Wednesday averaging 6.7 points and Pargo was averaging 6.6. The Lakers released Pargo in the 2003-04 season, a decision Jackson wrote about regretting in his best-seller “The Last Season.

The Hornets were playing without Peja Stojakovic, David West and Bobby Jackson – – their Nos. 2-4 scorers behind Paul – – all of whom were injured. They ranked 28th in the league in scoring and 29th in shooting.

The Lakers fell behind 64-58 midway through the third quarter when Jackson made wholesale changes. He brought Ronny Turiaf, Jordan Farmar and Maurice Evans off the bench while Odom, Kwame Brown and Smush Parker took a seat.

Teenage center Andrew Bynum played only seven minutes, none in the second half. Brown finished with nine points and nine rebounds but fell victim to Jacksons theory that “confusion limits activity.

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Game-time decision for Kobe

Kobe Bryant still hadnt decided on playing in Wednesday nights game against the New Orleans Hornets as of this mornings shootaround. Bryant said of his sprained right ankle, “It looks worse than it feels.

“This morning it felt pretty good, Bryant said. “Were just going to hold off till tonight, then see how it feels. . . .We just want to make sure its ready. If its ready to go, then Ill play.

Bryant said he was up again all night doing rehab exercises when he should have been sleeping. He shot a couple of jumpers and did some light jogging at shootaround.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson said he was encouraged that Bryant was considering playing two days after sustaining the injury because “at least it doesnt seem like its going to be a long-term thing.

“Its hard to tell with these things, Jackson said. “Weve told him that if he feels inhibited by it, not to put us at risk or himself at risk.

“I have confidence that he knows whats best for himself in this situation. He does want to play but he knows when hes jeopardizing himself or his teammates or his game.

Maurice Evans would start if Bryant ultimately decides not to play. The Lakers played all eight preseason games without Bryant as well as the first two regular season games.

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Kobe update

My colleague Rich Hammond covered practice in my place today. He reports that Kobe Bryant was up all night treating his sprained ankle and will decide after Wednesday’s shootaround about playing against the Hornets. It sounds as if the Lakers dodged a bullet with Bryant’s injury, regardless of whether he misses a game or two. Bryant said he heard a pop in his ankle and initially feared that he would miss between two and three weeks.

The Lakers can afford to be cautious because the Hornets will be at anything but full strength. Bobby Jackson is out two weeks with a cracked rib. Peja Stojakovic is out with back spasms and David West is out with a forearm strain. That leaves them without three of their four leading scorers. Rasual Butler and Marc Jackson both find themselves in the starting lineup.

Seeing Bryant in the locker room late after Monday’s game, I would have bet against him playing Wednesday. He was limping for sure and almost dragging his right leg behind him. Yet Bryant still appeared in front of reporters in a suit and had a pair of dress shoes on. It was remarkable how polished he looked in that situation.

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The computer polls

We’re going to see today just what happens when you let computers and voters decide who plays in the BCS championship game. I thought I’d pass along a link to Jeff Sagarin’s computer ratings for the NBA. Sagarin’s ratings for college football are included in the BCS.

It’s interesting to note that the Lakers’ strength of schedule, which takes into account the number of home games a team plays, is ranked 23rd right now. Chicago is No. 1 and Memphis is No. 2. The Celtics have had the easiest schedule, which doesn’t say much when you consider that they could be the NBA’s worst team right now.

The Lakers took Sunday off, which means they will have a long shoot-around Monday to get ready for Indiana.

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Live game blog

I’ll be doing the live game blog tonight from Staples Center for the Lakers/Clippers game. If you’re catching your breath after the USC/UCLA game, I’d love to hear from you.

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Friday report

Watching Kobe Bryant eviscerate Andrei Kirilenko in Thursday night’s game, I have to suspect that somewhere Raja Bell was feeling a little uneasy. There is nobody in the NBA with Bryant’s determination, and he proved it by scoring 52 points against Utah.

After last Friday’s game in Salt Lake City, Bryant was asked about the defense Kirilenko played against him in the fourth quarter. Bryant had two points and missed all three shots he took in the final period. The Lakers also found it easier to attack with Kwame Brown and Lamar Odom than to have a “leg-weary” Bryant battle Kirilenko.

I don’t remember exactly what Bryant said after the locker room cleared out but it definitely started with “If I have to read in a Utah newspaper that Kirilenko shut me down…” and went from there. It turned out Bryant heard the Jazz television commentators praising Kirilenko when he watched tape of the game later.

So Bryant hit shot after shot over Kirilenko in Thursday’s game. It was amazing to watch Bryant do that to a player who had seven blocks and six steals in a game against the Lakers last season. The short list of defenders who can hang with Bryant is pretty much limited to Ron Artest, Bruce Bowen, Bell, Kirilenko and a couple of others.

Bryant’s comments after Thursday’s game when reminded about what he said in Utah started with “Damn right.” He also offered the reminder to some of us that “When I’m not scoring, I’m facilitating.” In short, there is no one who can stop Kobe other than Kobe.

Which brings us to Bell, who has to be at the top of Bryant’s hit list. Long before he clotheslined Bryant in Game 5 of the playoffs last season, Bell held him to 37 points on 12 of 33 shooting in a January game in Phoenix. (Yes, held is the right word considering Bryant had 51 the game before and 81 the game after.)

I asked Bryant after that game if Bell had played one of the “better” defensive games against him that season. Not even best, just better. I forget what his answer was but he glared and said, “You should know better than ask that” after all the questions were over. It’s not a question we’re going to be revisiting.

There will come a time when Bryant is going to unload on Raja Bell. I have no idea if he’ll produce a 30-point quarter or a 50-point game or whatever. But it’s going to be stunning to watch.

* * *

Notes for Friday . . .

By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

EL SEGUNDO–How different might the NBA record books be if Kobe Bryant didnt get stuck reaching 50 points by the third quarter of so many blowout games?

Bryants 52-point game Thursday against Utah was just the latest example. He reached the mark by the end of the third quarter, with the Lakers leading 95-73, and returned for 3:23 of the fourth quarter with instructions to simply run the offense.

It was the 12th 50-point game of his career as well as the fifth time Bryant had done so in only three quarters. He had 62 points through three quarters and did not come back in the fourth last December against Dallas.

Bryant also had 56 points in three quarters against Memphis in January 2002 and 51 points in three quarters against Denver in February 2003. He did not play the fourth quarter in either of those games.

He had 50 points after three quarters of a March 2003 game against Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards and sat out the first six minutes of the fourth quarter before returning. Bryant finished with 55 points.

The one time Bryants scoring was needed in the fourth quarter of such a game came when he had 53 points in three quarters against the Toronto Raptors in January.

The Lakers led only 91-85 heading into the fourth quarter. And Bryant went on to score 28 points in the final period to finish with 81, the second-highest total in NBA history after Wilt Chamberlains immortal 100-point game in March 1962.

“Its just funny that when I have games like that, they tend to be blowouts, Bryant said Friday, “which says that me going off like that energizes us as a ballclub and deflates our opposition, because we wind up just running them over.

Only five players – – Chamberlain, Bryant, David Thompson, Elgin Baylor and David Robinson – – ever have scored 70 points in a game. Chamberlain did it five times in his career.

Bryant finished 19 of 26 (73.1 percent) from the field in what was the second-best shooting game of his career. He hit 20 of 26 shots (76.9 percent) in a December 2000 victory over the Houston Rockets.

After his 81-point game, Bryant said he took note of opposing teams being “on edge with every game he played in the following weeks. He was asked if he expected the similar double-teams and defensive attention after Thursdays game.

“We have such a balanced attack this season. Its a little different, Bryant said. “Last year, when I went on that run, we werent quite established yet.

“Now we have a well-rounded attack with guys that can shoot the ball and have confidence in themselves. Itll be interesting to see what (other teams) do.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson was happy to see that Bryants scoring was not a solo act. The Lakers scored 132 points – – 80 of which did not come from Bryant – – and shot 60 percent.

Measured game: Talking about forward Lamar Odom before Sundays game, Jackson noted, “I always kind of measure Lamar from the Clippers situation, referring to the games Odom plays against the team with which he started his NBA career.

Odom had 18 points but shot 6 of 18 in the Lakers victory over the Clippers on Nov. 21. The two teams will play again tonight in what will be a Clippers home game.

“I think sometimes P.J. and Brian Shaw say I play a little too emotional against them, Odom said. “I dont know. I just try to go out there and compete hard and hopefully I can do the same thing.

Also: The Lakers are 1-3 on the road this season, with Jackson saying a victory in front of a Clippers crowd would be a positive step. “Its definitely a road game, Jackson said. “Theres definitely a different feel to the building.

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Lakers 132, Utah 102, Kobe 52

The night that he scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, Kobe Bryant made 28 of 46 shots (60.9 percent). The night that he scored 62 points in three quarters against Dallas, Bryant made 18 of 31 shots (58.1).

You can probably see where this is going. The night that he scored 45 points and set an NBA record by connecting on 12 3-pointers against Seattle, Bryant made 16 of 28 shots (57.1).

The night that he had his old career-high of 56 against Memphis, also in three quarters, Bryant made 21 of 34 shots (61.8). And the night he had 55 points against Michael Jordan and the Wizrds, Bryant made 15 of 29 shots (51.7).

There are some questions you cant answer on deadline, but Thursdays game might have been the best shooting night in Kobe Bryants career. Bryant hit 19 of 26 shots (73.1 percent) en route to scoring 52 points in three quarters.

The efficiency of that is just staggering. Some of the best guys to talk to after each of these signature games by Bryant are the newcomers, who have seen them on TV but never experienced them in person.

Here was what Maurice Evans had to say afterward: He had 52 tonight, but Ive been in games as an opponent where hes beaten us with 40 and things like that. It wasnt nothing I hadnt seen from him before.

“I was impressed in the way he did it, how efficient he was. I think we did a good job continuing to play. A lot of times, when a guy gets hot and starts scoring, then people stop and start watching.

“The guys kept the energy up and didnt allow (Utah) to make a run that would have negated what he did offensively.

Bryant had made just 8 of 24 shots and taken 14 3-pointers in Tuesdays loss to Milwaukee. The fact that he did it against the NBAs best team only makes it more special. Bryants scoring average increased to 26.2 from 24.1 Thursday.

* * *

Bryants 30-point third quarter tied a franchise record and was the fourth-highest scoring quarter in NBA history.

The top three: 1. George Gervin, 33 points, April 9, 1978; 2. David Thompson, 32 points, April 9, 1978; 3. Wilt Chamberlain, 31 points, March 2, 1968.

So youre looking at Gervin and Thompsons battle for the scoring title on the last day of the NBA season and Chamberlains 100-point game. There was nothing contrived about what Bryant did.

* * *

The Lakers outscored Utah 8-2 with Bryant on the bench in the second quarter. Just thought that was worth noting. Maurice Evans gave the Lakers a lift in that stretch and finished with 17 points.

* * *

The Lakers finished November with a 10-5 record and bounced back from Tuesdays loss to Milwaukee. Lakers coach Phil Jackson cited one difference between good and great teams as their ability to stop losing streaks before they start.

* * *
By Ross Siler
Staff Writer

The last time Kobe Bryant had a game like he did Thursday night, the team on the receiving end had started the season 1-15. Not with 13 wins in the seasons first 16 games, as the Utah Jazz did in bringing the NBAs best record to Staples Center.

That didnt stop Bryant from delivering a performance not seen since his epic 81-point game against Toronto in January. Bryant scored 52 points in three quarters, before briefly returning in the fourth quarter, in the Lakers 132-102 victory over the Jazz.

Bryant tied his franchise record by scoring 30 points in the third quarter, making all nine shots he took from the field and all 10 free throws. The 52 points Bryant had through three quarters was only one shy of his third-quarter total in the 81-point game.

With that, Bryant had his first signature moment in the 13 games he has worn the new No. 24. It was a fact not lost on two of the teams longtime ballboys, who greeted Bryant after the game by saying, “We see signs of ocho.”

It also was an emphatic declaration that Bryant was back in full, a month after returning from right knee surgery. And it was sweet revenge for Bryant, who finished with two points and missed all three shots he took in the fourth quarter last Friday against Utah.

“After the last game, coming into tonight, Bryant said, “I knew that I had to just go for it and just believe that my strength and my health would be there.

The Jazz tried to play a zone defense against the Lakers early in the third quarter, before putting forward Andrei Kirilenko on Bryant, then finally leaving guard Gordan Giricek to fight for his life against a player on an unstoppable roll.

“The guys a great shooter and a terrific player but I never had anyone foul out guarding him, Utah coach Jerry Sloan said. “So that says its not important enough to try.

It was the 12th 50-point game in Bryants career. He set the franchise record for points in a quarter with 30 in the third quarter of his 62-point explosion against Dallas last December. The NBA record of 33 points in a quarter belongs to George Gervin.

The Jazz put Kirilenko, one of the NBAs best defenders, on Bryant midway through the third quarter. And Bryant hit a shot that even he couldnt believe over Kirilenko, an 11-foot floater from the left side.

“I was really, really hot tonight, Bryant said. “I didnt miss. I knew I was feeling it when I hit a one-legged runner, fading away. Then I knew it was a pretty good night.

For me, Ive never taken that shot before, just outside of growing up as a kid, playing in the backyard. But you get in a flow, you just do it.

The next possession, Bryant sized up Kirilenko with a series of between the legs dribbles and buried a 20-footer over him. Bryant had promised to answer back after Kirilenko held him in check in the fourth quarter last week.

There was nothing Utah could do to stop Bryant. He drilled back-to-back 3-pointers over Giricek with three minutes left in the third quarter as the Lakers went ahead by 20 points and the MVP chants echoed.

Bryant drew a three-shot foul against Deron Williams later in the quarter and capped things with a 20-footer with 1:08 left. Bryant scored 30 of the Lakers 42 points in the quarter. The Lakers went into the fourth quarter leading 95-73.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson brought back Bryant with 8:10 left in the fourth quarter and his team leading 101-81. Jackson said afterward that he wanted Bryant to run the offense and bridge the gap as the starters went to the bench.

Bryant missed the only shot he took in the fourth – – he hit 11 consecutive shots at one point – – but had two assists. He finished 19 of 26 (73.7 percent) from the field, 2 of 3 from 3-point range and 12 of 15 from the foul line.

“Ive seen a lot of great games from Kobe, Jackson said, “but that was a terrific performance.

After all the trouble the Lakers had breaking Milwaukees zone defense in Tuesdays loss, Bryant sent a message when the Jazz tried to do the same at the start of the third quarter.

Bryant took a pass from Lamar Odom at the foul line, getting to the middle of the zone with five Jazz players around him, and threw down a huge dunk with a stare. A minute later, Bryant drilled a turnaround 12-footer to again bust open the zone.

“It helps when I get in there, Bryant said, “and start doing things like that because then we all start getting confidence from there.

Neither Kwame Brown nor Andrew Bynum could match the impact forward Ronny Turiaf brought in the first half. Turiaf checked in for Bynum and played the last 8:12 of the second quarter, with the Lakers outscoring the Jazz 21-7 in that time.

Turiaf brought the scrappiness, with four points, two blocks and two rebounds, and Bryant scored 10 points in the last 4 1-2 minutes of the quarter. Bryant punctuated things by driving for a ferocious dunk with 3.9 seconds left in the half.

“We already had control of that game, guard Maurice Evans said. “(Bryant) just gave them no chance at all.

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